ROCHESTER, Minn. -- When it comes to infering common emotions like sadness, anger and fear, the sight of a surgical masked face poses no additional burdens to children than the sight of one wearing sunglasses.

That's the finding of a 2020-centric new study from the University of Wisconsin published this month in the journal PLOS One.

"We have gotten a lot of questions over the last several months over how mask-wearing is going to affect children's development," says Dr. Ashley Ruba, a postdoctoral researcher in UW-Madison's Child Emotion Lab and lead author on the paper.

Ashley Ruba, Ph D. has studied the ability for children to read emotional expressions on masked faces. Submitted photo.
Ashley Ruba, Ph D. has studied the ability for children to read emotional expressions on masked faces. Submitted photo.

"It's a question a lot of researchers who study emotions have been looking at recently: can kids still read other people's emotions ... what is mask wearing going to do to that?"

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An inability to read emotions can pose problems on the playground, in the classroom, and later in life, as childhood is a critical period for children to hone this valuable skill.

Seeking answers, the authors recruited 81 children aged 7-13 from after-school programs near Madison, then showed them standardized images of adults expressing sadness, anger and fear.

To set a point of reference for their skill in identifying emotions without any obstructions, the project first asked how well children understood the three moods when unmasked, offering them six labels to choose from.

They found children chose the correct emotion 66% of the time, a ratio far above chance, which was 17%. In general, children are best with interpreting sadness, followed by anger, and then finally fear.

A second round of the experiment showed the children unmasked faces wearing sunglasses, and a third round showed the children masked faces, without sunglasses.

Masking had a specific effect on the ability to see fear -- it was often mislabeled as surprise -- whereas sad and angry faces could more easily be conveyed by eyes alone.

In general, however, while kids did less well when facing either shades or masks, the drop-off was generally equal between masks and sunglasses, while neither face-covering affected the task all that much.

Presented with masked faces, kids correctly identified sadness 28 percent of the time, anger 27 percent of the time and fear 18 percent of the time, all higher than chance.

"The overall effect of face coverings on accuracy," the authors wrote about both masks and sunglasses, "was relatively small."

"If they can determine emotions with either the eyes or the mouth blocked from view, that means you just need one channel of information to come through," said Dr. Leslie Sim, a clinical child psychologist at Mayo Clinic. "It's like when you listen to music and one channel is out on the headphones, you can still tell what the song is."

"Kids aren't completely perfect," said Ruba, "but kids were doing above chance on all the groups.

"Most importantly, their accuracy didn't differ from when they were wearing sunglasses and the faces were wearing masks.

"Kids are obviously seeing people wearing sunglasses all the time, and this hasn't had any long-lasting impairments on their emotional development, as far as we know."

Some researchers still worry that children might be affected other losses this year -- like the sight of happy faces. But a year of seeing masks, according to the PLOS One paper, likely won't do anything more than an ordinary block of childhood spent watching grown-ups in Ray-Bans.

"I've been doing research in this field for 10 years now," Ruba says. "Every time I predicted that kids couldn't do something, or that it would be hard for them, they've always surprised me. In some ways I've learned not to underestimate babies or children because they are quite smart and resilient."